By David Godman
Published by Bhanumathy Ramanadham
Sri Lakshmana Ashram
(No ISBN number)
THE SUBTITLE, ‘The Lives and Teachings of Lakshmana Swamy and Mathru Sri Sarada’ explains the subject matter. Lakshmana Swamy realised the Self in Ramana Maharshi’s presence in 1949. Mathru Sri Sarada realised the Self in Lakshmana Swamy’s presence in 1978. The book contains fascinating details from both their lives, along with teaching instructions that were given out to devotees in the early 1980s.
A Tamil translation of this book is available.
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Lakshmana Swamy realised the Self in Ramana Maharshi's presence in 1949. Mathru Sri Sarada realised the Self in Lakshmana Swamy's presence in 1978. This book contains fascinating details from both their lives, along with teaching instructions that were given out to devotees in the early 1980s.
What follows is actually an extract from The Power of the Presence, part two, in which Lakshmana Swamy narrates his experiences with Bhagavan. The story is almost identical to the version told in No Mind – I am the Self, except that this is a first-person account. I converted the original third-person account in No Mind – I am the Self into this first-person account and then had it checked and corrected by Lakshmana Swamy himself.
On the last day of my [Lakshmana Swamy's] second year at college my attention was drawn to a large crowd that had congregated in and around the main lecture hall. I was not able to enter the hall itself because it was crowded with students, but looking over the heads of the people at the back of the hall I could see that the lecture was being given by my English professor, G. V. Subbaramayya. I was at a great distance from the platform so I could not hear clearly the words of the lecturer, but when he pointed to a portrait that was standing next to him on the platform and said that the sage in the portrait was Sri Ramana Maharshi, the words rang in my ears. Up till that moment I had never heard of the Maharshi. However, as soon as I heard the name, I felt an irrepressible longing to see him. Since no details of his location were given, I was not then aware of how I could go about finding him and seeing him. I should have asked Professor Subbaramayya, but I missed my chance, and since this was the last day of the academic year, I returned home to Gudur with no useful information about the Maharshi and his whereabouts.
I didn’t have to wait long to discover the information that I desired. As I was returning to Gudur by train the following day I saw a small booklet entitled Sri Ramana Maharshi on sale at the bookstore on the station platform. I eagerly purchased it, opened it at the first page and read the following verse that had been composed in Sanskrit by Ramana Maharshi himself:
In the interior of the Heart-cave the one Supreme Being, Brahman, shines as ‘I-I’, verily the Atman. Entering into the Heart with a one-pointed mind either through self-enquiry or by diving within or by breath control, abide thou in Atmanishta [the state of being firmly established in the Self].
I had already learned enough Sanskrit to understand the meaning. This one verse made a deep and immediate impression on me. There was no question of memorising it. As soon as I read it, all the lines were immediately imprinted on my heart.
I learned from this small booklet that Ramana Maharshi lived in an ashram just outside Tiruvannamalai. I located this town on a map, but at this time in my life I wasn’t in a position to make a pilgrimage there.
My laziness at college finally caught up with me and I twice failed my second-year exams. I went back to staying with my family in Gudur, but life there was far from congenial. I was under renewed pressure to get married and spent a lot of time arguing with my family over this issue. I stood firm and again refused to consider marriage. To avoid the quarrels at home I spent most of my time in solitary places where no one could find me or speak to me. Most of my time was spent in meditation. There was no necessity of finding a job because I had a small private income that had come from inheriting a share in my grandfather’s house. My portion of the house was rented out and I gave the income to my family.
A year went by in which I did little except meditate. Towards the end of 1948 my mother insisted that I must make a larger contribution to the family’s budget. A job was found for me in a local mica company where I worked as a clerk-typist for about five months. I had no interest whatsoever in the work. I did it only because my family insisted that they needed more money. At the beginning of 1949 I resigned my position and persuaded my mother to accompany me on a trip to Sri Ramanasramam. One of my aunts had already been to see Bhagavan, and she reported to me that he was an old man who wouldn’t live much longer. She described him as ‘a ripe fruit about to drop off the tree’. This report spurred me into action, making me realise that I didn’t have much time if I wanted to see Bhagavan.
My pilgrimage to Ramanasramam began at the local train station in Gudur. While I was waiting for the train to arrive, my mother started talking to two women who were also waiting for the same train. It was soon discovered that they too were heading for Ramanasramam. They were accompanying Sathyananda Swami, a long-time devotee of Ramana Maharshi. When this swami was informed that we were on our way to Tiruvannamalai and that we were planning to visit Ramanasramam for the first time, he invited us to join his party. I was delighted by this fortunate turn of events. I felt that Bhagavan himself had sent one of his devotees to guide us to his ashram.
The journey took all day and it was well after dark when we finally arrived in Tiruvannamalai. We spent the night at a choultry and the following morning we walked to Ramanasramam in the company of Swami Sathyananda. Instead of approaching the ashram by the main road, we ended up arriving through the back gate, located between the kitchen and the storeroom. As we were climbing the steps that led up to the gate, we saw Bhagavan walking slowly in the direction of the cow shed. Bhagavan noticed us, stopped for a few seconds to look at us, and then carried on with his walk. Entering through the back gate had thus proved to be very lucky because it enabled us to have a brief and almost private darshan of Bhagavan at a time when the ashram was immensely crowded.
I soon discovered that we had arrived at an inconvenient time. The ashram was overflowing with visitors who had come from all parts of the country to attend the consecration and opening ceremony of the temple that had been constructed over the samadhi of Bhagavan’s mother. The main consecration ceremony was due to take place a few days after our arrival.
Because we had arrived with a devotee who was well known to the ashram management, there was no problem in getting accommodation, but speaking to Bhagavan proved to be more difficult. I wanted to speak to him about the experience of the Self I had had in the dried-up lake in Gudur, but I never got a chance because there were always large crowds of people milling around him. I had to be content with having darshan in a large crowd of other devotees.
On one of the days of my visit I was standing by the main ashram well. Bhagavan was sitting nearby on a bench outside the hall where he usually slept, listening to a group of brahmin boys chant extracts from the Vedas. As I looked at the scene in front of me the world completely lost its solid, substantial reality. I became aware that everything I was perceiving in that scene was nothing more than a dream-like projection. This experience gave me the certainty that everything in the world, including the body of Bhagavan that I was concentrating on, was unreal. As I gazed at the scene I had the knowledge and the experience that the real Ramana Maharshi was not the dream body I saw before me, it was the formless, effulgent Self that I had experienced on the dried-up lake bed in Gudur. This experience soon passed away though, leaving me in my former state.
I divided my time between sitting with Bhagavan at the times he was available and sitting in solitary meditation on the hill. I only stayed three days on this first visit, but that short period of time was enough to convince me that in Bhagavan I had found the Guru I had been seeking. I decided to change my japa from ‘Hare Rama’ to ‘Hare Ramana’ since I felt that I could avail myself of my Guru’s grace by chanting his name. I read the Telugu version of Who Am I? that was on sale at the ashram bookstore while I was there, but I didn’t feel inclined to take up the practice of self-enquiry at the time because I was more accustomed to doing japa.
After three days I left my mother at Ramanasramam and went back to Gudur. I wanted to devote myself full time to meditation but the atmosphere in my house was too oppressive for proper concentration. I decided instead to go to a village called Govindapalli, which was nearer the coast and about fifteen miles from Gudur. Some of my relatives lived in this village but I didn’t want to stay with them. I just wanted a quiet place where I could meditate without being disturbed. I selected a quiet spot, away from the village and about three miles from the sea. My relatives helped me to build a small hut, which I paid for out of my own funds.
I moved into this hut and spent most of my time in meditation. Milk was sent once a day from the village, but I prepared the rest of my food myself, cooking it on a small fire that I would build by the side of my hut. I still kept up with the habit of getting up at 3 a.m. and going for a swim. Sometimes I swam in a tank near my hut and sometimes in a small river that flowed nearby. In the evenings I often walked to the beach and swam in the sea.
The local people had been very cooperative in the matter of building the hut, but many of them had advised me not to live on the spot I chose because there was supposed to be an evil spirit that inhabited the area. I wasn’t worried about things like that, so I settled down to do my sadhana. After staying there for a few days I heard a great noise that sounded as if all the trees in the vicinity were being blown down by a great wind. I went out of the hut and looked around me. I saw that the trunks of all the local trees were bending down to the ground and then springing back up again. Since there was no obvious natural explanation, I decided that it was this local spirit that was trying to frighten me. These spirits are harmless so long as you do not fear them, but if you become afraid, some of them are so strong, they can easily kill you. I ignored it and went back to my meditation.
My meditation proceeded very well. The constant repetition of my Guru’s name made my mind very quiet. On a few occasions it became absolutely still. When this happened the question ‘Who am I?’ would spontaneously arise inside me. Whenever this happened, as if in answer to the question, my mind would automatically sink into its source, the Heart, and experience the bliss of the Self. I never made any conscious attempt to practise self-enquiry. The question ‘Who am I?’ simply appeared inside me whenever my mind became completely free from thoughts.
My stay in Govindapalli lasted about five months. At the end of that period I contracted a severe case of malaria and had to be taken back to Gudur. The doctor who examined me there decided that I was likely to die. He informed my relatives, many of whom then came to see me to pay their last respects. I had no intention of dying. I had a strong determination that I would not die until I had seen my Guru again. I placed a picture of Ramana Maharshi by my bedside and willed myself to stay alive long enough to see him again. I meditated on this picture throughout the ordeal. Whenever I looked at it I felt as if Bhagavan himself was laughing or smiling at me. I am convinced that it was the power and the grace of Bhagavan that kept me alive and enabled me to make a full recovery.
I was in bed for nearly two months. Towards the end of that period I became a little despondent about my apparent lack of spiritual progress.
As soon as I was able to walk I told my family that I wanted to return to Tiruvannamalai to have Bhagavan’s darshan. Both my mother and my brother tried to convince me that I was too weak to travel, but I refused to listen to their advice. There were some heated arguments about the matter but when it became clear that my family would not give me permission to go, I walked out on them, vowing never to return to their house again. As I left I drew three long vertical lines on the door frame of my family home. This is a traditional symbol that indicated to my family that I had no intention of ever entering their house again. When my brother finally realised that I could not be persuaded to stay, he very reluctantly gave me Rs 60 to take care of my immediate expenses.
I set off for Ramanasramam immediately and arrived during the Navaratri celebrations of 1949. The second day of my visit was Vijayadasami, the final day of the festival. In the afternoon I stood in front of the Mathrubhuteswara Temple, waiting for Bhagavan to appear. He came out of his small room, accompanied by Swami Sathyananda, entered the new hall that was in front of the temple and took his seat on the stone sofa. There were only a few devotees present at the time. I went up to Bhagavan and made a full prostration in front of him. When I stood up, Bhagavan looked intently at me for a few moments. I withdrew and went to look for a place where I could do self-enquiry and not be disturbed by the other devotees. I selected a pillar that was outside the door that Bhagavan had entered through and sat down in front of it. Though I was outside the hall, Bhagavan could still see me from where he was sitting. Shortly afterwards I saw Muruganar taking a seat close to Bhagavan. I noticed that other devotees were entering the hall. After a few minutes Muruganar came and sat down next to me. A few other devotees came and sat near us. I closed my eyes and began to do ‘Who am I?’, the quest for the Self.
Within a few minutes I found that all thoughts had disappeared except for the primal ‘I’-thought. The question ‘Who am I?’ then spontaneously appeared within me. As it did so, the gracious smiling face of Ramana Maharshi appeared within me on the right side of the chest. There was something like a lightning flash that resulted in a flood of divine light shining both within and without. Bhagavan’s face was still smiling on the right side of my chest. It seemed to be lit up with a radiance that exceeded innumerable lightning flashes rolled into one. The bliss and joy these experiences gave me brought tears to my eyes. A torrential flow welled up within me and rolled down my face. I was unable to control them in any way. Finally, the ‘I’-thought went back to its source, the internal picture of Ramana Maharshi disappeared, and the Self absorbed my whole being. From that moment on the Self shone alone and the ‘I’-thought, the individual self, never arose or functioned in me again. It was permanently destroyed through the grace of my Guru in his holy presence.
I remained absorbed in the Self, without body consciousness, for about three hours. The experience was so intense, even when I opened my eyes I found I was incapable or either speaking or moving. The realisation had caused an immense churning within the nervous system, so much so that when body consciousness returned, I felt extremely weak.
When I was finally able to register what was going on around me, I noticed that everything was perfectly normal. Bhagavan was still sitting on his couch and all the assembled devotees were pursuing their normal duties and activities. My tears and my loss of consciousness had not attracted any attention at all.
I remained where I was for another three hours because I was incapable of movement of any kind. I remember hearing the dinner bell and the noise of the Vijayadasami procession as it went round the temple, but I was too absorbed in the Self to contemplate either eating or joining in the celebrations. At 9 p.m. I finally rose to my feet and very slowly made my way back to my allotted place in the mens' dormitory.
The following morning I still felt very weak. Thinking that I might feel better if I ate some food, I started to walk towards town to see if I could get a meal at one of the hotels there. Unfortunately, I overestimated my strength. Before I could find a place to eat, I had an attack of dizziness and collapsed on the street. A friendly passer-by took me under his wing, ascertained that I needed food, and then guided me to a hotel that was located on the south side of the temple. I felt much stronger after the meal and I had no difficulty returning to the ashram.
Later that afternoon I went up to Bhagavan in the darshan hall, prostrated before him, and handed him a note via his attendant Venkataratnam. The note, which I had written in Telugu said, ‘Bhagavan, in your presence and by the quest [“Who am I?”] I have realised the Self’.
Bhagavan read the note, looked at me for a moment, and then his face lit up in a radiant smile. For some time we just looked at each other.
Bhagavan broke the silence by asking me where I had come from.
‘Gudur,’ I replied.
‘That’s in Nellore District, isn’t it?’ enquired Bhagavan.
‘Yes,’ I answered.
This was the only conversation I ever had with Bhagavan. After giving him these two brief replies, I didn’t speak again for another thirteen years.
As I returned to my place in the hall I heard Bhagavan tell Venkataratnam to keep my note on a shelf that was behind his sofa.
Accommodation was in short supply at the ashram. After four days I was asked to leave to make room for other visitors who wanted to see Bhagavan. I decided to look for accommodation in the surrounding area since I planned to stay permanently. I had no intention of going back to Gudur. Before I left home my family had agreed to send me the rental income that came from my half of my grandfather’s house. The amount was more than enough to live on. Raja Iyer, the local postmaster, helped me to find a small thatched house about 250 yards from the ashram. I shared it with a boy called Raghavan who was already living there. Since I had money and he didn’t, he agreed to do all the cooking if I bought the food.
One of the first people to visit me in my new house was Venkataratnam, Bhagavan’s attendant.
On his first visit he said, ‘In all the years I have been Bhagavan’s attendant, I have never seen anyone present a note like this before. I am experienced enough in the ways of Bhagavan to know that the beaming smile he immediately gave you was proof that the claim was genuine. Bhagavan made no comment to me about your note and the message it contained, but he did ask me to check up on you to make sure that all your needs are being taken care of and that you are properly looked after.’
From that day on Venkataratnam became a regular visitor. He would come and sit with me whenever his services were not required in the ashram, and on one occasion he embarrassed me by trying to massage my feet and legs.
Bhagavan was giving darshan every day from nine to eleven in the morning and from three till six in the afternoon. At those times I would go and sit with him in the ashram. Around midday I would walk to town and eat a meal in a hotel, and at the end of the afternoon darshan I would sit for an hour on the lower slopes of Arunachala. I had no further interaction with Bhagavan, but every time I went to see him in the hall, his face would light up and break out into the same radiant smile he had given me on the afternoon I had presented him with my note.
After about three months in Tiruvannamalai, I moved to Palakottu. I found a small room I could occupy by myself and moved in. I paid one rupee a month rent to the watchman of the Ganesh Temple that bordered Palakottu Tirtham and I engaged a young girl to bring a cooked lunch to me since I no longer felt like making the daily trip to town to eat.
A woman called Marakatha Mataji also tried to feed me, but her attentions were a bit of a nuisance. She had a great liking for sadhus and she spent most of the money she earned on feeding them. When rich visitors came to the ashram, she would offer her services as a cook. She was very good at her job and her employers, including at least one maharani, were always satisfied with her cooking. She often used to make sweets for her employers, and when she did so, she would always contrive to keep a few for the sadhus near the ashram. Any cash payment she received would also be converted into sweets for sadhus. At distribution time she always tried to give the recipients a big kiss along with the sweets. I became a favourite of hers and she frequently tried to ambush me with a sweet and a kiss as I was leaving my room. If I knew she was there, I would stay in my room in the hope that she would give up waiting and go away, but she had enormous patience and sometimes I had to put up with her ministrations. She also tried to kiss Bhagavan on many occasions, but her habits were well known and his attendants had strict instructions to keep her away from him.
Bhagavan’s health was deteriorating very quickly and the darshan hours were often drastically curtailed. He had a sarcoma in his arm and the toxic by-products were spreading to the rest of his body. Several operations had failed to check the damage. After one such operation, he gave darshan lying on a couch outside the ashram dispensary. His eyes were nearly closed as I approached him, but as I stood before him, Bhagavan opened his eyes and gave me his usual radiant smile. I was so engulfed by this smile, I forgot to give the customary namaste greeting [palms together in front of the chest], and the ashram manager had to remind me to do it. After I left, Bhagavan relapsed into his former state.
Though I never sought to attract Bhagavan’s attention, he always seemed to know if I was in his vicinity, even if he couldn’t see me. On an earlier occasion, when Bhagavan was giving darshan in the new hall, his view of me was completely obscured by a newspaper that one of his attendants was holding. He immediately asked the attendant to remove the newspaper and then beamed his usual smile at me.
As the darshan hours became less and less, I began to spend more and more time sitting quietly in my room. I did pradakshina of Arunachala once a week, and I still sat on the mountain every evening, but my life was beginning to enter a new phase. I would spend hours and hours each day sitting in my room in a thought-free state in which I had no awareness of either my body or the world. This tendency to withdraw into the Self became stronger and stronger as the weeks and months went by.
By April 1950 it was clear to everyone that Bhagavan was about to give up his body. The cancer had debilitated him to such an extent, he could barely move. About a week before his death I was walking around the Mother’s Temple, the one which was being consecrated on my first visit to the ashram. On my way round I stopped to look at a statue of Ganesh that had been recently garlanded. As I gazed at the statue, it began to move in its niche. The head and shoulders started to rock backwards and forwards, and each time it rocked forwards, the bowed head of Ganesh moved nearer and nearer to mine. I suddenly realised that if I stayed there any longer, the garland would slip from the statue’s neck onto my own. I didn’t want to be garlanded in this way, so I moved away from the statue and continued my walk around the temple.
A week later, on the evening of April 14th, I was cleaning my room in Palakottu when a picture of Bhagavan, which was normally kept on a stool in the corner of the room, fell to the ground. I put it back in its usual place, making sure that it was not in a position that would cause it to overbalance again. A few minutes later it fell to the ground for a second time. I felt intuitively this was a sign that Bhagavan was dead or dying. I felt a strong urge to go to the ashram, but before I could leave I lost awareness of the world and I became wholly absorbed in the Self for a period of about two or three hours. Consciousness of the world returned shortly before 9 p.m. when I heard a great noise coming from the ashram. I knew then for certain that Bhagavan was dead. I rushed to the back gate of the ashram, the nearest gate to his room, only to find that the police had already locked it.
By the time I made my way into the ashram by the front gate, Bhagavan’s body had already been removed from the room where he had died. It had been put on display outside it. Later that night, when most of the grieving devotees had left, it was taken inside the new hall.
I had seen Bhagavan for the last time earlier that day. On that occasion, as we looked into each other’s eyes, I experienced such a strong wave of ecstatic bliss, I became completely oblivious of my surroundings. Now, seeing Bhagavan’s lifeless body, I experienced very little emotion. People were crying all around me and my first reaction was that I too should shed a few tears for my Guru. But no tears came. I was unhappy that Bhagavan had died, but at the same time I was unable to cry or participate in the sorrow of the other devotees because I knew that nothing had really happened. I knew that Bhagavan was the Self before he gave up the body and I knew that he was the same Self afterwards. Filled with this awareness that nothing had really happened, I left the thousands of grieving devotees and silently returned to my room.
Most of Bhagavan’s devotees left the area within a few days of the funeral, but since I had no urge to go anywhere, I remained in my room in Palakottu. In the weeks and months that followed, my health began to deteriorate. I spent most of my time in my room in a state of deep samadhi in which it was impossible for me to pay any attention to the body’s needs. When the girl who cooked for me brought me my midday meal, I often ignored it. Sometimes I ate it, but mostly I gave it back to the girl to eat herself.
After several weeks of living like this, my body began to waste away. I started to get attacks of dizziness when I stood up and my digestive system started to malfunction. One attack of food poisoning left me so weak, I discovered I didn’t even have the strength to pull a bucket of water out of the Palakottu tank. When I put the bucket in the water and pulled, the weight of the water pulled me into the tank. In my weakened state I was lucky to survive at all. One sadhu I knew succumbed to cholera and died, and there was an epidemic of malaria in the area that was also claiming many lives.
I ignored all these events and continued to sit quietly in my room. While I was inside I only ever wore a kaupina, but none of the thousands of mosquitoes that shared the room with me ever bothered to bite me. The only other occupant of the room was a squirrel that used to sit on my lap when I was in samadhi. I used to keep some peanuts near me, and whenever I emerged from samadhi, the squirrel would eat a few out of my hand.
News of my weakened condition reached my relatives in Gudur. Despite our previous quarrels they were still concerned about me. They asked me to return to Gudur where I could be properly looked after, but I refused to leave. Sometime later my mother and brother came to visit for a few days. When they discovered the extent to which I was neglecting my body, they renewed their attempts to get me to come back to Gudur. My brother offered to build a hut for me where I could live alone and also undertook to provide me with food. I again refused, saying that I didn’t want to leave Arunachala.
I spent a total of nine months in Palakottu, mostly just sitting quietly in my room. Towards the end of this period my skin turned yellow and it stayed that way for the next three years. Around October 1950 I finally admitted to myself that I was no longer capable of looking after my body. I had no one to take care of me, and I was never aware of my body for long enough to do the job myself. Reluctantly, I decided that I would accept my brother’s offer, go back to Gudur and let my family look after me.